Rumsfeld's War

"Leaning forward" is one of Donald Rumsfeld's favorite expressions. An old cold-war term, familiar to soldiers and spies, it means the willingness to be aggressive, to take risks. "I want every one of you to know how forward-leaning we are," the secretary of Defense told a room full of Marine generals and Navy admirals at the North Island Naval Air Station, near San Diego, last month. Rumsfeld recalled his own dissatisfaction with his first Pentagon briefing on the rules of engagement, the military's rules on when a soldier can and cannot shoot, at the beginning of the war in Afghanistan last fall. The briefing, delivered by a lawyer from the Judge Advocate General's Corps, was convoluted and full of legalistic hedges and maybes. "That's not the way it works," Rumsfeld told his audience of top brass. "This is a military operation. The object is to be forward-leaning." Explained one Rumsfeld aide: "He wants to go out and kill bad guys."

In the Rumsfeld world view, it's not just the military that needs to be prodded to "lean forward." It's the whole country--and its top leadership. When he was named secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld once told a NEWSWEEK reporter, he went to the then President-elect George W. Bush and told him that the "word was out" around the world that the United States had gone soft, that America had become an easy target. Rumsfeld said that he told Bush that a crisis would surely come and that he, Rumsfeld, would be in the Oval Office, urging the president to "lean forward." The crisis came on 9-11.

President Bush leaned forward in Afghanistan. But will he in Iraq? And if he does, will America fall flat on its face? The press and politicians are demanding a clear rationale for invading Iraq and some solid evidence that Saddam Hussein has developed weapons of mass destruction, as well as the will and capacity to use them. Last week administration officials began making the case for "regime change" to congressional leaders, and President Bush will try to win international support when he addresses the United Nations this Thursday. But the facts will probably remain murky, the logic inconclusive. At the end of the day, Bush's instincts, his world view and his state of mind will prove decisive. Eliot Cohen, professor of strategy at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and author of "Supreme Command," an influential book on presidential war-making, says: "This is visceral. This is about what your gut tells you."

Two camps are vying for Bush's viscera in a fierce Washington war over whether to go to war. On the one hand, there is the Go Slow School. Its dean is Secretary of State Colin Powell, patient and prudent; its most forceful spokesmen are ex-advisers to President Bush's father, Wise Men like former national-security adviser Brent Scowcroft and Secretary of State James A. Baker; its publicists are most of the mainstream media, most prominently The New York Times; its faculty are the heads of government of almost all of America's allies in the world. (Some say the Go Slow School has its own secret society: the privately dovish Joint Chiefs of Staff.) On the other hand--and apparently holding the upper hand--are the Forward Leaners inside the administration, led by Vice President Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld. It may be more symbolic than significant, but last week, while Powell was off getting heckled at an international conference in South Africa, President Bush was schmoozing with military commanders at a buffet dinner held at the home of Don Rumsfeld. Bush still hasn't shown whether he will embrace the Rumsfeld-Cheney go-it-alone foreign policy or more closely heed Powell's warnings that American power depends on close friends in the world. At the United Nations this week, he will be searching for some kind of middle ground. But there can be no doubt that Bush wants to act, not dither, on Iraq, even if that means striking pre-emptively.

Powell and Rumsfeld represent two prevalent Washington types and two deeply held world views, rooted in their respective experiences and backgrounds. Rumsfeld's spirit informed Bush's declaration last week that Saddam was "stiffing" the rest of the world, but Powell has to live in that world, as does America. Much depends on the outcome of their basic (though still friendly) struggle. Will America in future years be viewed as a hopeless bully that radicalized another generation of Islamic youth? Or a respectful and respected force for democracy?

Cheney, secretive and taciturn, may be the most powerful force behind the scenes. But the most visible and certainly the most colorful frontman for attacking Iraq is Rumsfeld. He embodies a certain attitude, a boldness and confidence that he glories in. On his massive Pentagon desk is a bronze plaque he bought in a New Hampshire flea market. It quotes Teddy Roosevelt: "Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords."

Rumsfeld has also been known to quote Al Capone: "You'll get more with a kind word and a gun than a kind word alone." His bluff, blunt manner, so reassuring during the anxious days after 9-11, now makes his critics fear that he has become a reckless warmonger. "Rummy" takes such pleasure in taunting reporters and using words like "kill" that he is perhaps too easy to parody. In fact, say his closest colleagues, his most useful attribute is not his machismo or his impatience, but his determination to ask hard or fundamental questions and test conventional wisdom. "No one who has ever listened to Rumsfeld would call him cavalier or a gambler," says Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby. Rumsfeld's determination to "lean forward" on Iraq "fits the view," says Libby, "that sometimes the risk of inaction is greater than the risk of action."

Rumsfeld is a product of a time and generation that was long in eclipse but whose outlook and attitudes are now making a comeback at the highest levels of the U.S. government. Rumsfeld's story--his early rise, his years in the wilderness and his return to power--is revealing of the underlying forces shaping the debate over Iraq. Rumsfeld "is free of irony, postmodern doubt and angst," says a close aide. The secretary of Defense has confronted a foreign-policy establishment and Pentagon culture that have grown ponderous and risk-averse over the past 25 years. The decision on whether to invade Iraq, seen through the prism of Rumsfeld's background and experience, can be seen as a clash between the values of the Greatest Generation and the early cold warriors and the baby boomers who came to power after Watergate and Vietnam. "He is trying to bring back the duty of service and American responsibility, to beat back the attitudes of the Vietnam generation that was focused on American imperfection and limitations," says Henry Kissinger.

Rumsfeld is deeply proud of the fact that his father, at the age of 38, joined the Navy as an enlisted man and served on a carrier during World War II. A middle-class kid from Chicago, Rumsfeld "grew up in a sunny, you-can-get-it-done era," says a top aide. "He still has a city-of-broad-shoulders view of the world." At Princeton, where he --was voted "third best body" by his classmates, he was a ferocious wrestler. Princeton's motto, "In the Nation's Service," had real meaning to Rumsfeld. He was so inspired by a speech on the duty to serve, given by Adlai Stevenson, class of '22, to the Senior Banquet, that he still hands out copies to friends and reporters.

Rumsfeld has always been a bit of a daredevil: after flying jets in the Navy (too late for combat in Korea), he has skydived, ridden motorcycles and water-skied fully clothed. But at college he was also a closet grind who bored deep into his studies and refused to settle for glib answers. In person, he deflects his intensity with a kind of hearty-jock good humor. He has always been in a tremendous hurry: a congressman at 30, White House chief of staff at 42, secretary of Defense (the youngest ever) at 43.

Rumsfeld had the misfortune to grasp for power just as men of his kind were losing their grip. In 1975, when Rumsfeld arrived for his first tour as "SecDef," the country was still reeling from Vietnam. The Best and the Brightest, the swaggering Ivy Leaguers of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, were in disrepute. The WASP establishment, once confident of its power, was entering a twilight of self-doubt and decline. At the same time, the Watergate scandal dealt a blow to executive power. In the Washington pecking order, what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called the Imperial Presidency was replaced by a new antiestablishment--investigative reporters, prosecutors, congressional oversight committees.

Increasingly, the upper levels of government were dominated by a new breed of government careerist, more polemical and manipulative than the proud amateurs who had come to Washington from their Wall Street banks and law firms after World War II. Rumsfeld's college-boy enthusiasm grated on the foreign-policy professionals. Once, when Rumsfeld's college roommate bumped into him at the White House, Rummy playfully grabbed his old chum in a wrestling hold while they were chatting with President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. A startled Secret Service man pulled his gun. Kissinger muttered, "Ugh, must be from Princeton."

The post-Watergate period was a confusing, unsettled time in Washington, and, in his drive to get ahead, Rumsfeld adopted some of the less admirable traits of the new order. He became a bureaucratic gamesman himself. Without ever directly stating his opposition, he sank the Ford administration's SALT II arms-control agreement. Kissinger--no slouch at bureaucratic hardball--did not doubt Rumsfeld's convictions, but he also suspected that Rumsfeld was playing politics, trying to curry favor with the Republican right wing whose backing he needed to run for president.

Except for considering and quickly abandoning a presidential candidacy in 1988, Rumsfeld vanished into the private sector after Jimmy Carter's election in 1976, growing wealthy as a very successful corporate CEO of high-tech and drug companies. He stayed involved in defense matters, most prominently running an outside commission that pushed for a missile defense shield in 1998. When George W. Bush asked him to take over the Pentagon in 2001, Rumsfeld instantly saluted (at considerable financial cost, divesting himself of millions of dollars of stock in defense-related companies).

By then his political ambitions were long gone. "His attitude had changed. One had the sense that he was totally focused on service," says Kissinger, the onetime rival who over the years has become Rumsfeld's friend. But the Pentagon had also evolved a great deal over the same time frame, in ways that made it difficult for a hard-charging civilian outsider to take control. The top brass had been indelibly shaped by their grim experiences as junior officers in Vietnam. "They had seen men get killed stupidly, and they weren't going to let it happen again," says military historian Cohen. The uniformed military had taken over true control of the Pentagon from the nominal civilian leadership, the service secretaries. The last dominating, intrusive Defense secretary had been Robert McNamara back in the '60s. ("General," one of McNamara's "whiz kids" once told Air Force chief Curtis LeMay, "you don't have a war plan, you have an orgasm.") Post Vietnam, many generals have won more academic degrees than combat decorations and spent much more time in the classroom than on the battlefield. They were far more savvy about writing budgets and buying weapons systems than any quick-study political appointee could hope to be.

Rumsfeld's brusque, hands-on management style collided head-on with the Pentagon culture. Rumsfeld can't stand yes men and wants to provoke open debate. He has surrounded himself with advisers who "enjoy poking sticks into the wheels of a bicycle," says an aide. Political generals, by contrast, get to the top by avoiding controversy and confrontation. The women's movement and some egregious scandals like "Tailhook" have made the military politically correct, even puritanical (the once raunchy marching cadences, or "jodies," have been cleaned up of all but the mildest double-entendres). In the modern military, risk is anathema to rising stars, who cannot afford any slip-ups on their records. "Zero defects" and "zero tolerance" are common bywords. The model general? Colin Powell. While Rumsfeld displays a Teddy Roosevelt-as-Rough-Rider quote on his desk, Powell has kept a saying from Thucydides on his: "Of all the manifestations of power, restraint impresses men the most."

Rumsfeld values mavericks and tries to protect and promote them. One was Andrew Marshall, a gnomish Pentagon official who has long pushed radical concepts about a "revolution in military affairs." Returning to his office one day shortly after he came to the Pentagon, Rumsfeld said to an aide, "I just took Andy to lunch. I think that'll send a signal." Indeed it did. Alarm bells rang up and down the Pentagon's long corridors. The generals and admirals feared that Rumsfeld, armed with Marshall's far-out ideas about futuristic weaponry, would want to stop building carriers for the Navy, tanks for the Army and fighter planes for the Air Force. The top brass complained to reporters and congressmen that Rumsfeld was threatening to wreck the armed services.

The sanctum sanctorum of the Pentagon, where the Joint Chiefs meet to discuss strategy and decide which weapons to buy, is called the Tank. In the summer of 2001, Rumsfeld was invited to the Tank to talk over his differences with the chiefs in private. The meeting was contentious. The very next day, Rumsfeld, with rising anger, read all about the meeting in The Washington Post. Gen. Henry Shelton, the chairman of the JCS, suggested that the secretary come back to the Tank to talk things over. "No," said Rumsfeld coldly. "I'm not going there. The Tank leaks."

Since then, Rumsfeld has visited the Tank no more than once or twice. His defiance was symbolic: the center of gravity at the Pentagon slowly began to shift. The real turning point, however, came after 9-11. Heeding the president's orders to take out the Taliban in Afghanistan, Rumsfeld wanted to get "boots on the ground" as fast as possible. Only 12 days passed before the first Special Forces slipped into Afghanistan, but under Rumsfeld's constant demands for action, "it felt like 12 years," says a close aide. "It was excruciating." Rumsfeld has "incredible impatience with not getting things done," says this aide. "He'll say, 'What did I ask you to do two months ago?' and you'll say, 'Sir, it was two days ago'."

Rumsfeld had no use for the military's cumbersome process for making war plans. Normally, the field commander--in this case, Central Command's Gen. Tommy Franks--presents a plan to the Joint Chiefs, who work it over and present it to the secretary of Defense for his yes-or-no authorization. But Rumsfeld wasn't about to play rubber stamp. From the beginning, Rumsfeld dogged General Franks, peppering him with questions. The war in Afghanistan was planned in Rumsfeld's office, not the Tank. Rumsfeld still talks to General Franks three or four times a day.

Some of the chiefs are unhappy with this state of affairs, and they, or more likely their lower-level minions, have been leaking Iraq-invasion scenarios to the press, with an eye toward stopping them. Rumsfeld is so incensed that he has ordered the FBI to investigate. He is still frustrated by the difficulty of getting straight answers from the bureaucracy and the often-poor quality of intelligence. He fires off "snowflakes," queries that fall on the bureaucracy like "a blizzard," says an aide. Rumsfeld worries that his orders don't get through, that lawyers and overcautious commanders will water down forward-leaning rules of engagement. "It's a transmission belt, and there's slippage in every gear," says an aide. "By the time it gets to the trigger puller, he thinks he can't use his weapon."

Rumsfeld is regarded in some quarters as a know-it-all, but actually, he is something far rarer in Washington: confident enough to admit ignorance. Two of his top aides, Torie Clarke and Larry DiRita, say they're not quite sure how he got a reputation as a "bureaucratic black belt" because, if anything, his style is too straightforward and open. Nonetheless, he has made enemies, at times needlessly, not just in the Pentagon but all through the government. The State Department loathes his "Rummygrams," memos questioning this or that policy, usually in pointed terms.

He and Colin Powell are still friends, despite their differences. They tease each other mercilessly. Spotting Rumsfeld in an arm cast after surgery for arthritis, Powell cracked, "Give me a high-five." But White House aides worry that if Rumsfeld and his hawkish deputies push too hard on Iraq, Powell will quit. According to one senior administration official, Bush himself is worried that Rumsfeld may be overreaching, playing at secretary of State as well as Defense. (Rumsfeld has pulled back a bit, last week withdrawing an op-ed piece from The Washington Post making the case for pre-emptive action in Iraq.) The president cannot afford a messy squabble at a time when he is trying to rally public and international support.

Bush listens to Powell and respects him. But his gut, say White House insiders, is closer to Rumsfeld's. Especially since 9-11, Bush has looked ill at ease with diplomatic ambiguity and has been most comfortable with moral imperatives and bold courses of action. Though he worries about the political fallout and the enormous risks of war, Bush is leaning in Rumsfeld's direction: forward, into Iraq.